What Makes an Antique

I have had friends call me over to their homes or the homes of their parents to look through their attics or storage units. It is something that I might enjoy if I just got to poke around and look. However, usually there is an ulterior motive. Everyone is hoping that whatever has been stored there was worth saving. More importantly, that it is now worth quite a lot.

Now, I like antiques. I’ve looked at loads of them in stores, at markets, and online. I’ve talked to dealers and read books. But I’m no expert. I am always so nervous when someone asks me to look over an item. How can I tell if something is authentic or a reproduction? There are ways, yes, and some of them are easy. Others are not and require an expert eye. For all of my enthusiasm, I would not call myself an expert by any means.

The difference between a piece just being old furniture and being an antique is simple: an antique is “collectible.” Your great granny’s rocker might be in good shape and very old, but if nobody would buy it, you have a useless old piece of furniture gathering dust and taking up space. Another thing that sets antiques apart is that they can usually associated with a time period or a certain style. For example, a Louis XVI chair or a Sheraton table. If it’s just “old” or from “long ago” it’s probably not antique.

When determining if something is antique, start by looking for any information you can find about where it was made, when it was assembled, or who made it. We call this a maker’s mark. If you can narrow it down to a certain company or even a location, you can research the piece and find out valuable information. An expert will know where to look and be more familiar with names and companies.

Look at how it is put together. That can also tell you a lot about when it was made. For example, you can pull out a drawer and see if there are dovetail joints. You may be able to tell if they are handmade or done by a machine. You can look at how the hardware was attached (many antiques don’t have screws). What are the inside of the drawers or the back made of? If it is plywood, it can’t be older than the 20th century.

Also check out the details: look at the hardware. Does it look brilliantly shiny, or does it look like it is original to the piece? If it looks new or has Philips screws holding it in place, it is likely a forgery or at least partially restored. How is it finished? There weren’t a lot of options for wood finishes, so it was usually shellacked, which usually led to a dull (not mirror or high gloss) shine. You might even be able to see the thickly applied layers.

For every attic I’ve climbed up into and every dust-mote infested storage unit I’ve been driven to, I have really only seen one or two pieces that were probably valuable. That is OK. Sometimes things have a different kind of value to them: if a piece brings you happiness or reminds you of a family member, bring it out of storage and display it proudly. What does it matter if it has little monetary value?